Home > pirates, roleplaying > All games are theories about the world

All games are theories about the world

October 10, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

1. The announcement that G+ is going to shut down reminded me that I should’ve always been posting everything here and just linking to it on G+. And if I didn’t have anything worth writing on the blog then maybe I didn’t have anything worth writing. This will be the new policy going forward, we’ll see if I can stick to it.

2. I’m planning to rescue any actual creative work I did on G+ and repost it over here so that it doesn’t just get deleted. I don’t know when, but it should give the blog a weirdly healthy look for a while, like a septuagenarian with a facelift and cortisone injections.

3. Here’s the actual post:

I’ve been writing some sailing ship combat rules and playing some sailing ship combat games, and it’s reminded me of how good Civilization (5) is.

All rules present a model of the world, which is to say a theory about it. When you play the rules you explore the theory. Really good, ingeniously written rules help you understand the theory. If they’re informed by smart theories, they might even teach you something about the subject at hand. But this hardly ever happens, especially in video games, because there are lots of competing interests demanding stuff from the rules that don’t have anything to do with theory building.
– They have to present a certain incline of learning curve or the player won’t bother with them.
– They have to offer frequent little stresses and rewards or the player will get bored.
– There always has to be a path to victory, but not too broad a path.
And the interface has another set of rules it needs to follow – it needs to be quickly grasped and then it needs to disappear, letting the game shine through.

There are lots of failure modes that video game rules tend to fall into, but maybe the most common is that the stress/reward structure and the “feel” of the interface tend to win all arguments, so that the experience of playing the game ends up having nothing to do with the theory it wants to have. And this tends to happen in particular with ship combat games. Interfaces get complex quickly, if they try to represent the systems of the ship, the weather, and the tactical space. Sea battles don’t happen at a pace that’s satisfying for a twitchy action game – the haptics of controller-manipulation are not naturally fitted to the anxieties of ship captains. A ship shouldn’t feel like a car – if it does, it’ll be a frustratingly unresponsive one.

The Pirate: Caribbean Hunt is a great example. The theory is, you can command a fleet of ships, get involved in big, 18th century naval battles, deploy round, chain and grape shot in historically plausible ways, and revel in the life of a sea captain (inevitably a pirate, because after all you’re a gamer and therefore a greedy libertarian) – swabbing blood off the decks and avoiding going into irons and getting the weather gage and so on. And almost all the ingredients are presented to let you do that – combat kills lots of people, whom you keeping needing to replace. Not only is it annoyingly impossible to sail into wind, the big ships even make you fiddle with the sails a bit to turn faster. The economics of ship upkeep and repairing battle damage are just present enough to keep you busy without becoming a big chore. So far, so good.

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.55.38 AMScreenshot

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 10.11.53 AM.pngSource material

But the actual fighting… that’s where the theory breaks down. Because real sea battles are all about making less bad decisions than your opponents. There aren’t many repeatable tactical flourishes that will let you get out unscathed, instead it’s about showing up with overwhelming force, having better supplies, constraining your enemy’s movements, and deciding what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to win. Sometimes you need to charge in and board before they can blast you out of the water, sometimes you need to hold them off while you do the blasting. Nelson said he owed his success to his love of gambling – once you’ve committed your forces, you generally can’t extricate them again without catastrophic losses. Most of all if you’re in a sloop and they’re in a frigate, you’d better hide behind some islands or pretend to be a merchant of a friendly power or something.

The Pirate isn’t going to commit to that, so its battles inevitably become this:
Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.56.39 AM

you running away just a little bit faster than the enemy (this is a corvette, the fastest ship in the game, indestructible in a player’s hands), throwing gunpowder barrels off the transom for the other force to run over.

(Historical note: sea mines did exist from the 19th century on, but they were big bulky purpose-built things and only sometimes worked. Nobody has ever won a sea battle by heaving barrels of gunpowder into the water for the enemy to run over.)

If you don’t use the gunpowder barrel trick, you can try this:Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.58.43 AM.pngrunning away and turning to shoot occasionally. As long as you’re faster, the only limit here is your ammunition and your patience.

So this has 3 basic problems:

1. it’s boring – the very thing the designers didn’t want – because the smart way to win every battle is to spend hours doing repetitive, fairly easy things: run away, turn, fire, barrel, run away, turn, fire, barrel. (Don’t even get me started on why I don’t have a fleet – it’s because the AI for your other ships is so miserable that they just get in the way.)
2. it’s not what they sold you. This is not piracy, even if they gave you a bunch of the trappings. This is a reskin of a ski slalom game.
3. if you have any theory of ship combat you might bring as a player, it’s no use to you, because the theory they wanted to present has been abandoned in favor of some other emergent theory they didn’t even know they had – about what the player will tolerate in terms of deadliness and difficulty/failure as a learning mode. About how you should be able to fight your way up from small ships to big ones, rather than getting those bigger ships by negotiating or trickery or night-time theft.

Civilization, on the other hand, is all about its theories. And although some of those are suspect, its basic idea of combat is good – even illuminating. It’s all about concentration of force (the very thing The Pirate promises with its Line of Battle dressing but doesn’t deliver with its nugatory fleet command system).
Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.45.19 AM.pngCiv’s artillery units are weak and slow, so you keep them behind your infantry. Its shock troops can take and deal a lot of damage, but they’ll get slaughtered if they’re not adequately defended by ranged weapons. Its ranged units are only strong when defended by fortifications. The way to win is to deploy all of that quickly, architecturally, so that you rain the combined forces of several units down on an isolated enemy piece, so that each individual battle is short, so you overwhelm the enemy locally (defeat them in detail), and so you don’t get bogged down over giant fronts in equal exchanges that just kill lots of people on both sides.

It’s simple, it’s abstract, it’s obviously not aiming for realism… but it feels right and it feels like it can teach you stuff about historical battles. Force concentration is how smaller Roman squares broke up enormous Greek formations. Missile support won the Battle of Agincourt, grave of the French cavalry. The theories are clear, applicable, and they’ve survived through the whole game’s development.

There are concessions – Civ plays out over millenia and no real country has military units more than a couple of hundred years old, and those that are don’t actually level up through all that time, so this Supermurderer Class Battlecruiser is strictly ahistorical, a sop to players who get sentimental about their units:Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.31.04 AM
(that’s the good ship Semarang, evolved up Pokemon style from this ancient galley:)Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.31.37 AM
and when the theories do break down – when the battles get so huge as to be unwieldy – they decay more or less gracefully, not catastrophically. The question of who will win the exchange below comes down to the order in which units move and shoot, and the unpredictable performance of the submarines… the sort of thing people actually wrote about WW2 naval battles.Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.44.34 AM.png

I guess only playtesting will tell me if the rules I’m writing are more like The Pirate or more like Civ… but I’m making a good faith effort to write a game theory that will deliver historical-type outcomes.

So this is a call for playtesters – the sort who will test the theories, do the stupid things that exploit the rules, and show me what the rules actually say, rather than the kind who will imagine co-operatively with me and try to behave like historical captains. If you’re interested in being such a tester – and if you can be patient, because there may well be months between sessions, then I’d like to hear from you.

I don’t know where I’ll land yet, but for now I’m checking each of these every few days:

richardg@pluspora.com
mewe.com/i/richard.g
richardg.dreamwidth.org

Oh yeah, and The Pirate? After I figured out how to beat it, I devoted my time to assembling a museum collection of ships in Miami.
Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.29.12 AM.png
Of these, the 1st Rate Liverpool is useful only as a troop transporter. The faster-turning xebec and corvette are the conquerors.

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.30.07 AM.png
The Pirate says it’s 1770 but it has galleasses, fluyts, clippers and paddlesteamers. So I guess that’s 1770 +/- 100 years.

 

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